In the Time of Caterpillars (Happy 25th Anniversary)

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(HOST) The Arlington/Manchester area was one of the worst pockets for this year’s tent caterpillar infestation. And this hit commentator Philip Baruth unexpectedly hard – especially since,
in his mind, Arlington and Marriage go hand in hand.

(BARUTH) When my mother and my stepfather were dating, they used to drive from Upstate New York to Vermont for long, holiday weekends. To Arlington, specifically, to camp along the banks of the Battenkill River – truly the Sugar Ray Leonard of American rivers. Not the biggest, not the hardest punching, but arguably the best pound for pound. They were eventually married in a small ceremony right on the riverbank, just below the West Mountain Inn.

And some 18 years later, when it was our turn, my wife and I decided to elope during a power failure at the West Mountain Inn. Two days later, we said our vows in East Arlington.

And for the last seven years, the four of us have met and camped together along the Battenkill, usually in the summertime, in the month between our anniversaries. We use my Mom’s camper, which is just large enough to be visible to the naked eye from the Space Shuttle. When they pull into the campground, they let their three dogs out, uncrank a massive striped awning, put out camp chairs and heat up a big pot of spaghetti.

But this year – their 25th anniversary, actually – when I got there I noticed that none of the camp chairs were out, and the fire pit was cold. I knocked on the camper door, and my mother hurried me inside. “We can’t go out,” she said, and I looked at my stepfather and he nodded. “They’re all over the place.”

I had no idea what they were talking about.

“The tent caterpillars,” my mother said, “they’re swarming all over everything this year.”

But I couldn’t imagine a night in the woods there without some time in a chair by the fire, and finally I talked her into going out to sit on the picnic table. But even before we got there, I saw what I hadn’t seen on the short walk to the camper: masses of cater- pillars on all the trees, on the ground, on the picnic table. They were about an inch and a half long, black and gray with silver bristles. We brushed away five or six and sat down, but every time we cleaned them off the plastic cloth, they would come blindly up the metal legs of our lawnchairs, or drop in two’s and three’s from the branches above. I don’t exaggerate when I say that, within five minutes of leaving the camper, we were sprinting back inside.

And of course when we got there, we saw that one another’s backs were laced with the things.

So we spent the night in the camper, and we had a wonderful anniversary party there. My mother and my stepfather seemed very happy eating their spaghetti. As I ate, caterpillars were falling sporadically on the metal roof. But I was also looking at my mother and my stepfather and thinking, so now they’ve been through this together too – plague, an actual biblical plague of insects. And it’s just one more thing the two of them have out- lasted.

And, suddenly, part of me saw a sort of beauty in the caterpillars huddled and moving together against the wrap-around windshield. Don’t get me wrong: these caterpillars were disgusting indidually and horrifying collectively, and I think the state should provide Manchester with whatever Manchester wants in its own defense – money, helicopters, heavy weaponry, whatever it takes. But at just that particular moment, in that particular light, they were every one of them lovely things.

Philip Baruth lives in Burlington and teaches at the University of Vermont.

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